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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Emily’s Pearls Still Shine in the 21st Century

By June 11, 2008

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Emily Dickinson wrote no epics or stage plays, and her poems did not partake in public life in her own century (the 19th)—yet more than a few of her readers in later years have been struck by the penetrating commentary on events of their own current day offered in her short lyrics. The most recent essay marveling on the powerful “contemporariness” of Miss Dickinson’s 200-year-old lines is in the current issue of Boston Review:

This Ecstatic Nation: Learning from Emily Dickinson after 9/11,” by Maureen N. McLane
Naming Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty,” McLane quotes many lines in which Dickinson “uncannily... anticipate[s] some of the more controversial responses to 9/11.” And her quotations illustrate the ways in which Dickinson works her way through terror and paralysis in her poems: “one can also think.... this is what Dickinson arouses us to do.... ‘Is Awe Nature; and destruction the beginning of every Foundation? Do words flee their meaning? Define definition.’”

Back in 2003, our correspondent Robyn Su Millerz used Miss Dickinson’s poems to construct a commentary on the events of that date, during the run-up to the Iraq war, when the White House poetry symposium was cancelled for fear of poetic protests: “What Would Emily Say? An Indeath Interview.” The war is now more than five years old, and so is the article, but Dickinson’s lines make it worthy of rereading...

Both of these essays sent me back to Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems, where I rediscovered the pleasures of dipping in, taking a taste from here and a taste from there, reading a poem aloud, letting it echo among the other things I’ve read or experienced that day, then reading another poem, often at random, and listening for the harmonics. Her poems are so small, so apparently fragmentary, so full of hesitations and turns, that you can use them almost like Tarot cards, drawing a new combination each time you open the book. They are not, of course, actual fragments (like the bits and pieces of poetry we have left from Sappho)— if you pay attention you will see that each poem is remarkably round and whole, shiny like a pearl, each word both a surprise and a seeming inevitability, something human and true embodied in just a few lines. Like the last one I read tonight:

I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away —
As Wrecked Men — deem they sight the Land —
At Centre of the Sea —

And struggle slacker — but to prove
As hopelessly as I —
How many the fictitious Shores —
Before the Harbor be —
More on Emily Dickinson:
Biographical profile of Emily Dickinson
Our Library: Poems by Emily Dickinson
What Would Emily Say? An Indeath Interview,” by Robyn Sue Millerz
Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma,” by Jone Johnson Lewis

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